So, as the caption indicates, I did this sketch for a friend named Marshall. One of the first places I discovered up here was Vesuvio Cafe across from City Lights Bookstore, and everything about it made me feel compelled to draw, write, be there. City Lights is the bookstore that originally published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it’s still an amazing bookstore today. Across the street, amongst strip clubs and restaurants and eclectic housing, is a business that designates itself The Beat Museum. You can buy T-Shirts with a picture of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan standing together in a doorway that’s visible from the tables on the second floor of Vesuvio, near where I drew that picture of myself. Vesuvio has pictures of Kerouac, Neal Cassady, all those guys, hanging on the walls, and most of them allegedly hung out and wrote there. I think it recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Downstairs, they sell absinthe, melt sugar and pour it through the slotted spoon and the whole bit. The absinthe makes me think of Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, what they would have been doing if they had been there, what they would think of me and that hat and sweater I’m rockin’ in that picture. The picture of Dylan and Ginsberg makes me wonder what Rimbaud would have made of Dylan, an admitted fan of his. What would Woody Guthrie have made of Paul Verlaine? I like to imagine that, in this cafe of my imagined poetical pantheon, Rimbaud would have found his way onto Neal Cassady’s lap. If we’re all there, he would be welcome on my lap too, of course.
The first time I came to Vesuvio, I immediately felt a rush of heady electricity, imagining all these connections and permutations rushing backwards through time and forward to Broadway and Columbus today, and hopefully forward further into the future, if those who can do there best to make sure it does. My first night that I wandered in there, I hadn’t brought a sketchbook with me, but I knew that I had to draw something, or write something, and I knew that if I had a pen in my hand something would come out of it, so I ran to the nearest store I could find, which happened to be a Walgreen’s, they’re everywhere up here, and I ran (literally) back, to the alley where that Kerouac quote at the top of the drawing is written in the ground, near the Ginsberg-Dylan door, and I wrote it down in the notebook. Of course, after spending a little more time in Vesuvio I noticed that on a lot of nights it’s overtaken by annoying twenty-something guys talking loudly to impress the vague, confused, and too-buzzed twenty-something girls they’re trying to fuck, will fuck if they can just get them a little more buzzed so they aren’t sure any longer whether loud, assertive men remind them of their inclination to rebel against their fathers or their inclination to seek their approval. Those people are a lot more interested in the titty bars than in the psychic residual permutations of William Burroughs. They’re not everybody, though, and the bar is still one of many places that make me profoundly grateful to live in this city where so many things have happened, and walk streets that Hitchcock and R. Crumb have walked.
A while after doing this sketch and sending it to Marshall, I was in Cinch, a bar on Polk where I seem to enjoy getting blindingly drunk a lot of Fridays, and I was stopped by an older man who pointed at my sketchbook. I try to carry my sketchbook with me as much as possible when I go out, I never know when I’m gonna need it, and it also serves to give guys who might want to talk to me an easy excuse. I couldn’t understand what the older man was saying, so I leaned in close to hear him. He was wearing a scarf and a hat, and so was I.
“Do you do poetry?” He asked me.
“Some,” I say. “I write. Comics, different things.”
“Do you like poetry?”
“Sure,” I say. He asks my favorite poets. I don’t really know that much about poetry, so I name the obvious ones, most of whom I mentioned above. When I get to Ginsberg, he smiles and taps my arm. “I knew Ginsberg, ” he says.
“Seriously?” I don’t know if I believe him or not, but I’m interested.
“Can I see your sketchbook?”
I open it for him. I get to the sketch above, and the man becomes visibly excited.
“Kerouac!” he says, pointing to the quote. “People your age, they seem to know Kerouac now.”
“Did you know him?”
“I talked to him once,” the man says, “but I don’t really remember about what.”
The fact that he’s admitting that he doesn’t remember rather than making something up makes me more inclined to believe him.
I ask him to tell me more about Ginsberg, and he starts to tell me about a reading he went to where Ginsberg and another poet took apart a piano with a hatchet. He tells me about a love-in in Golden Gate Park, with people openly selling acid and other Beat poets reading. He tells me about being in a cafe one afternoon, maybe 10 blocks from where we were, and Ginsberg coming in and asking them to listen to him read something he was working on. It was an early draft of Howl.
“The things that were happening in this city then, the ’50′s and ’60′s, people you’re age feel like they’re relevant now?”
I tell him that the more I explore art, poetry, music, comics, prose, all of it, a lot of my interests seem to go back and revolve around those times. He nods and says that he feels like it’s coming back, that whatever cycles we travel in are coming back around to those times. I feel like we’re saying the same things from two sides, because it’s something that I’ve been grappling with recently. Politically, culturally, artistically, there’s a sense that something needs to be done and a relevance to idealism that seems to be an echo of other historical crash-and-burns. Maybe it’s Obama.
“What are you here for?” the man asks me.
I was in the bar to get laid, but I took it he meant San Francisco in general rather than the Cinch specifically. “I don’t know,” I say. “I just felt like it was where I was supposed to be.”
“You know,” he said. He put his hand on my chest and smiled at me. “You just need to find out.”
I stared at him, a little drunk and confused, not quite knowing what to say to that. What do you say to that? But somehow, it seemed completely real. In a movie, you probably would have shifted in your seat or maybe rolled your eyes. But I thought I knew when he was referring to, even if, like always, I can’t quite be sure I wasn’t confusing knowing with hoping.
Shit like that never happened in Riverside.